Bill Willis was known for quickness at the line of scrimmage after a snap, but he helped leave a long-lasting legacy.
Willis starred at East High School in Columbus, Ohio, before playing for Paul Brown at Ohio State and later for Brown again in the founding season of the Cleveland Browns in 1946.
The Browns won four straight All-America Football Conference championships before becoming a member of the NFL in 1950. Willis is credited with a touchdown-saving tackle that kept intact Cleveland’s run to the league championship that year.
Willis, a three-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro, and Marion Motley joined Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams as the first four African Americans to break pro football’s 13-year color barrier in 1946.
Willis is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and was named to the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team. After his career, Willis worked in youth sports in Cleveland and as chairman of the Ohio Youth Commission. He passed away at age 86 in 2007, but not before inspiring young people that included Vikings Ring of Honor member Jim Marshall, who also attended East High School and Ohio State.
“My first influence was Bill Willis. He was a great example to how you should run your life if you want to get some place,” Marshall told Vikings.com. “He was a very hard worker, very fast, very quick, worked on his skills constantly and became one of the best players in the National Football League.”